An Account of the Antiquarian Remains in Sultanganj (Jahngira)

Saga of an Ancient city that even lost its Original name !

An Account of an Ancient Pilgrimage destination connected with the Legend of the Ganga’s Rebirth !

If one were to travel along the Ganga from Munger to Bhagalpur, both in Bihar, a prominent rocky island, seen in the close vicinity of a rocky hill on the banks, is sure to attract attention. Mysterious in appearance with remnants of sculptures from the distant past, which are visible from a distance, it stands as a mute witness to the turbulences of time, being located near the vast remains of an ancient city, which even forgot and lost its original nomenclature in due course. Now known as Sultanganj, it perhaps serves as one of the best examples of continuity, since, having faced tremendous adversities, it still managed to retain its ancient status as a favoured pilgrimage destination, though only with vestiges of the past splendour, believed to have originated due to its association with the legend of the Ganga’s rebirth. My fascination with the ancient remains at the site dates back to the the early months of 2005, when, as a young Indian Police Service (IPS) probationer, I had been posted for District Practical Training in Bhagalpur. In those nostalgic days, learning the various dimensions of field policing was the first and foremost task in my mind, since the time available seemed less and many concepts had to be assimilated deep within, for survival through the long years of police service ahead. However, as I toured around in the vicinity, successive encounters with considerable ancient remains lying almost unattended at several places in the region, always attracted my attention towards them.

Jahngira Island during Shravani Mela before construction of Foot-Bridge (Source – Shashi Shanker, Photojournalist from Bhagalpur)

During all my journeys from Bhagalpur towards Munger or beyond to Begusarai or Patna, whenever I crossed Sultanganj, I wanted to explore the mysterious rocky island, atop which a temple, named as Ajgaibinath, existed, and, of which I had once seen a photograph in a text on the history of Bihar. I could see that it was visible even from a significant distance along with the remains of some beautiful images sculpted upon various gigantic rocks. The hill was then approached by a small boat from the ghat where also existed another hillock, popularly known as ‘Murli Pahari’ (earlier ‘Baiskaran’, interpreted as Vyasa Karna by Dr. R C P Singh) upon which existed an old mosque amidst several similar ancient remains. As I looked at the magnificence of the site from a distance, I wanted to plan a detailed visit, whenever the opportunity would afford itself, only to explore it from the perspective of its heritage. It was in January, 2005, itself that I had first intended to plan a boat ride to the island within the river, but, due to paucity of time, it could not then materialise. In April, 2005, as I got posted to Kahalgaon as the Officer-in- Charge of the Police Station for three months, I was fortunate enough to find some spare time to visit some of the widely scattered remains in the vicinity1. However, even as I could briefly tour the eastern part of the district, exploration of the western side, which included Sultanganj, remained as a desideratum.

As the years passed on after I left Bhagalpur, my craving for heritage increased multifold and my mind was always looking for an opportunity to visit the site and complete the unfulfilled mission. Finally, years later, on 26th March, 2016, during my posting at the Police Headquarters in Patna, I got an opportunity to visit Bhagalpur for some official work, and fortunately could also spare some moments for exploration. On 27th March, 2016, I revisited sites near Kahalgaon which refreshed old memories, and planned for more exploration on the way back to Patna on the following day. Towards the evening, after return from Kahalgaon, as I discussed my plans to visit Sultanganj with the curator at Bhagalpur Museum, I also gathered details about Kherhi hill, another less explored site, not very far from Sultanganj and holding immense promise, and added it on the next day’s itinerary.
Jahngira (J D Beglar, ASI Reports, Volume XV)

Ajgaibinath Temple, Jahngira

Accordingly, on 28th March, I firstly reached the base of Kherhi hill, situated within the busy marketplace at Shahkund, otherwise a sleepy town. After a strenuous climb, I reached the remains located atop, which on a closer analysis seemed to represent a temple site of utmost religious sanctity in the ancient past. The remnants of sculptures and damaged inscriptions, which left me mesmerised thinking about the faith of those pilgrims who had left their marks in the past, clearly indicated that an esteemed religious centre was flourishing there at least since the Gupta times, and had sometime later been abruptly sacked and destroyed. As I shall be writing in detail about Kherhi in another account, I shall presently continue with my account of the remains at Sultanganj. As I descended after exploring Kherhi, sunset was drawing close, and my mind was immersed in thoughts about the interconnection of such scattered historical sites in the close vicinity of Champa (capital of the ancient Anga Mahajanpada, with remains at Nathnagar, Bhagalpur).

As vehicles started moving towards the coveted rocks at Sultanganj, I inquired about the contemporary road conditions, which had been quite dismal in the past. I was astonished to learn that while the road conditions had considerably improved, other changes were probably even more pronounced and in fact so much so that vehicles could now even approach the otherwise ‘unapproachable rocky island’, during the dry season, since river waters had drifted probably due to gradual siltation following the construction of a bridge for pedestrians by the State Government (sometime probably around 2007). Built for approach to the Ajgaibinath temple from the mainland by devotees who assembled in large numbers during the rainy season, the new construct struck me as a surprise since on earlier occasions, the paucity of time for organising a boat trip, which was expected to take not less than an hour and half or even more, had always prevented me from having approached the rocks. With the mind immersed in such thoughts, I gradually realised that the group of vehicles had already passed through a crowded marketplace and was approaching the erstwhile rocky ‘island’. It finally halted at the steps marking the entrance to the Ajgaibinath temple, located atop and still maintained by a traditional seat of Mahants, at least since the Mughal times.

Ancient Sculptures under threat of survival, Riverside, Jahngira
Newly Constructed Bridge for Pedestrian usage

As I disembarked from the vehicle and approached the ancient rock boulders, with the main temple structure constructed upon the summit, I was aghast to discover that survival of past remnants at the site seemed to be in great danger as rock boulders containing ancient sculptures and even inscriptions were being covered and defaced by upcoming modern constructions. As I approached the rock face on the north, lying on the river side of the main stairway, I noticed a large platform being constructed with sand being filled within walls of concrete so as to create more space for the construction of structures to be rented out for running shops and commercial establishments by the temple management. At the bottom of one such construct which was soon supposed to be filled up with sand in order to extend the existing platform, an ancient sculpture of Surya on a rock boulder could be prominently noticed. Several locals who had by then approached after having seen me entering the temple premises along with several other police personnel, on being asked informed that many more of such sculpted boulders including one bearing the image of the Goddess Ganga (also noted and sketched by Cunningham for his report in 1879), had already been either covered or damaged by the temple management pressed with the ever-growing need of increasing the sources of finance for the temple and probably for other purposes as well, by way of filling and raising the land around the earlier island for accommodating more shops and commercial establishments, which could provide fixed rents.

Threatened Ancient Sculpture of Surya, Jahngira
Tilted Sculpture of Ganga as seen by Cunningham (The Sculpture has now been covered under sand by the Temple Authorities looking for more space for commercial/residential establishment. The now threatened sculpture of Surya is seen in the background

From the pace of the ongoing constructional activity, it seemed that the ancient sculpted panels on the rock would soon get buried within the sands over which newly created space would become available for commercial activities and for the accommodation of pilgrims and temple personnel. At that time, as I lamented upon the ignorant destruction of precious ancient heritage, I also advised the local police officers accompanying me to keep a watch on the constructional activities and to discuss issues related to the preservation of past heritage with the temple administration. However, glancing upon the disinterested looks of one from the Mahant’s establishment, I truly felt within the core of my heart, that the survival of what I was witnessing was only a matter of probably a few more years. Anyway, with a pained mind, I decided to explore the site in detail and also to extensively photograph it for proper documentation and further research. During my visit, since there was no water in the part of the river close to the erstwhile ghat (bank), owing to heavy siltation, the foot bridge was of no practical usage since even vehicles could reach the erstwhile island directly. However, the bridge was stated as critical during the monsoon for providing entry into the temple to the scores of pilgrims who visited on a daily basis.

Surya Sculpture saved due to my sudden visit

The traditional importance of the site lies in the fact that the river Ganga here becomes ‘Uttarvahini’ i.e. takes a turn to the north towards Mount Kailasa (the abode of Lord Shiva), a deviation from its general course towards the south. Since such sites are very uncommon, they are specially regarded as sacred and are often visited by pilgrims for religious ceremonies, especially on important days. However, among such Uttarvahini sites, Sultanganj, with its rocky island historically referred as Jahngira, has been of enormous sanctity. Buchanan in his report observed that there must have been some peculiar reason2 which made it the most frequented of the three such sites in the vicinity (other two being at Munger and Kahalgaon), even when the circumstance of the river running northward was not as well defined or remarkable as at the other two. Later, Cunningham also noted it as being the most holy and frequented of the three sites in the vicinity.

In my opinion, the reason for such sanctity may not be far to seek and can surely be gauged from its nomenclature, believed to have been derived from Rishi Jahnu, associated in Hindu mythology with the story of rebirth of the river Ganga, which is also thus addressed as ‘Jahnavi’, or the daughter of Jahnu3. The ancient story mentions that the river, initially on her way to the ocean, on the route charted by the legendary sage Bhagirath, by the rush of her currents, had unknowingly interrupted Rishi Jahnu’s meditation, who suddenly became so enraged that he swallowed the whole incoming waters in a gulp with all his acquired miraculous powers. Bhagirath, having secured the river from heaven for its earthly course was deeply shocked and had to pray upon Jahnu for her release, and it was only upon such intercession, that the river was later released and thus reborn.

Sculptures on the Riverside Rock Face

As can be appreciated, the rocks at Sultanganj, being the first such encountered within the Ganga on its course towards the sea after descent from the Himalayas into the plains at Haridwar, become the natural location for presuming any events related to the legend. Apart from association with the legend of the river’s rebirth, another reason for fame among Uttarvahini sites, could be it’s location in close proximity to the temple of Lord Ravaneshwar Mahadev i.e. Baba Baidyanath Dham at Deoghar (Jharkhand), which owes its origin to a legend4 associated with Ravan, the Lankan ruler and is one of the most sacred 12 Jyotirlingams of Lord Shiva.

The tradition of pilgrimage from Sultanganj to Deoghar is known to have existed since long and can still be witnessed in full exuberance during the Shravan month of the Hindu calendar (generally during July & August) every year, when millions of pilgrims from India and abroad, called as ‘kanwariyas’ and dressed in saffron outfits, congregate for collection of Gangajal (holy water) at the river’s banks and thereafter journey, mostly on foot, about 110 km, perhaps the longest such fair, to shower upon the sacred lingam in Deoghar, where the temple is historical and confirmed to have existed since5 at least the 15th century A.D., by J. D. Beglar in his report for the Archaeological Survey of India (1871-72), and by R. L. Mitra (1883). With the devotees continuously chanting ‘Bol Bam’ and ‘Har Har Mahadev’, this annual assemblage of faith, creates a unique scene, which if probably photographed from above would represent two rivers – one of the marine form flowing from Gangotri into the Bay of Bengal and the other of saffron human form flowing continuously from Sultanganj to Deoghar.

Historical Accounts

At Sultanganj, the Ganga’s course is changed by the rocky hillocks, one being in the middle, and the other forming a bluff head-land at the bend of the stream. These rocky extensions of the mainland acquired sanctity and respect since ancient times and were adorned with monuments and sculptures, as seen from the surviving relics and from the continuing tradition of pilgrimage. To start with an account of the site, it would be worthwhile to have a look at the historical references available so far. With beautiful impressions crafted meticulously on the rock-face by several artists at different times in the past, which still retain their peculiar air of mystery and sanctity, one would expect clear references in ancient texts about the importance of the site. However, mysteriously, any clear historical references have still not been found in any ancient literary or even mythological texts, even when remnants clearly indicate that it must have been a prominent religious centre in the ancient past, and surely since the 4th to 5th centuries A.D., as authenticated by the surviving inscriptions in early and mature Gupta characters. Surprisingly, even Chinese travellers like Fa Hian and Hieun Tsang, who visited regions in the vicinity of the ancient city of Champa, respectively in the 4th and early 7th centuries A.D., and left detailed accounts about several concurrent sites, astonishingly missed this site even when a prominent Buddhist monastery had then existed, not very far from the rocks.

In the absence of any accurate information even in the Puranic legends, the first historical mention of the rocky hillocks is probably found in the records left behind by Abdul Latif, son of Abdullah Abbasi, an inhabitant of Ahmedabad (Gujarat), who, in 1608 A.D., had accompanied his patron Abul Hassan (the father-in-law of Shah Jahan), then appointed as the diwan of Bengal, on a river trip from Agra to Raj Mahal and on the way back from Rajmahal to Ghorghat. On 18th May, 1608, he had visited the rocky island, termed by him as ‘Mashan’, and observed that the village was situated half a kos from the river, and was an ordinary place “but it has two hillocks, one in the midst of the river and the other on the bank, facing each other, so that there are few places on earth equalling it in airiness. How can I describe the charm of its mornings and evenings and the beauty of its moonly nights, which exhilarate the spirit and freshen the life of man. On the hillock by the river’s edge, a pious man has built a beautiful mosque. For the last 30 years a dervish has been engaged in prayer here. A room has also been built for drinking water (abdari). What a charming retreat, no better can be found for the darvish.”

The remains thereafter were documented by Buchanan, who visited on 21st February, 1811, during his survey of Bhagalpur, and later also by Babu Rajendra Lala Mitra and General Alexander Cunningham, who visited respectively in 1864 and 1879. Cunningham after his tour in February, 1879, ascribed the rock cut images to the 2nd / 3rd Century AD. The same were ascribed to around the 7th / 8th century AD by Bloch and later have been understood by Frederick M Asher, S. Sahai, Dr R.C.P Singh and others, as having been sculpted from the early Gupta days to the medieval period. Dr Singh in his monumental work on the Archaeology of Champa and Vikramshila tried to compile the iconography and chronology of the sculptures in more detail and importantly clarified (within brackets) that the hillock referred as Baiskaran by Cunningham and Buchanan, was actually Vyasakarna.
Poor State of Preservation of the Ancient Sculptures (Riverside, Jahngira)

The accounts of Buchanan remain invaluable since he freely documented and interpreted whatever he witnessed according to his experience and understanding. Interestingly, Sultanganj is mentioned as being the largest town of the then division with about 250 houses, having a good deal of trade under “Thanah Kumurgunj”, the concurrent name of which has been mentioned to have originated from “the Kangwar, or pots suspended from a pole, that are used for carrying water in pilgrimages.” A village named Kamarganj still exists near Sultanganj, which confirms the ancient tradition of pilgrimage and may also be of significance in tracing the original name of the site. Buchanan reached the ‘curious rocky hills’, after traversing about 2.5 miles, passing first through Kumurgunj, which he stated as “occupied by invalids, shopkeepers and retailers of Tari, who lived by supplying passengers”, and noticed 3 or 4 “wretched huts” at the end of the town, where lived Goalas from Katak, who played with snakes and danced to a kind of bag-pipe, indicating the presence of a Sapera community. He described the hills as consisting of a fine granite, reddish felspar, little white quartz and much black mica, with Jahngira, or the “Fakir’s rock”, “not as large as any of the three islands at Kahalgaon was separated from another hill of the same materials, now belonging to the Muhammedan saint, by a branch of the Ganges, perhaps 400 yards wide.”

Sacred Lingam of Ajgaibinath
He found the ‘Gaibinath’ temple, on the summit surrounded by the buildings of resident Dasnami Sannyasis, in good repair, which looked well from a distance due to their noble situation, but upon near approach as “the most mis-shapen rude inconvenient mass that I have ever seen.” He learnt about an interesting story regarding the foundation of the temple by one Harinath, “a very holy person, who had forsaken the pleasures of the world (Sanyasi)”, who had made the rock his abode and religiously made pilgrimages to Baidyanath, despite facing vast troubles. Ultimately, his deep devotion earned divine blessings as God “informed him in a dream that he would have no farther occasion to come so far, as on his return to the island he would find an image, to which he might address the prayers”, which accordingly happened, and Harinath became the Mahanta or head of a convent of Sanyasis, who took up their abode at the temple of the image called ‘Gaibinath.’ During Buchanan’s visit, Digambar, the then Mahanta, though born as a Brahmin in Kharakpur (Gorakhpur in the Journal), but having adopted sanyasa, stated himself as being 13th in succession to the founder. He acknowledged no superior nor guru and, and had about 20 chelas, with the community having 5 or 6 servants.
Murali Hill as viewed from Ajgaibinath, Jahngira

Importantly, Buchanan’s account confirms that the tradition of annual pilgrimage predated the establishment of the Ajgaibinath temple by Harinath, ascribed to around 1500 A.D. by Cunningham, upon analysis of Buchanan’s account and speculation of an average tenure for the 12 earlier Mahants. Importantly, Cunningham’s date seems to tally with the same time-frame around 1498 A.D., when another Mahant named as Gosain Ghamandi Giri, established his Matha amidst the ruins at Bodh Gaya. It is probable that during these turbulent times, various Dasnami Sanyasis, who were roaming and preaching around in different regions of Bihar and Bengal, gradually took up abodes in such places, which were earlier esteemed for religious sanctity, but which had been rendered desolate following repeated incursions by foreign invaders. The ancient tradition of pilgrimage at the site, however, seems as having remained unaffected, being still quite popular in Buchanan’s times, as he remarked “At the three usual full moons, from twenty to thirty thousand persons may in all attend to bathe”, and that “the great emolument of the priests arises from about 50,000 pilgrims who at various times come to carry away a load of water which they intend to pour on the heads of various celebrated images in distant parts. In the south of India I have met pilgrims carrying their load from this place, but by far the greater part goes to Devghar in Virbhum, where it is poured on the Priapus or Lingga called Baidyanath, to whom this water, taken from a scene of former pleasure, is considered as peculiarly acceptable.”

Buchanan described the sanyasis as very “poor-looking creatures” who appeared to live a “life of listless mortification”, having little or no communication with the shore during the rainy season (floods), owing to the rapidity of the current which rendered the approach dangerous. But, in other seasons, they received gracious offerings from almost every Hindu, of any sort of note, who passed up or down, and more abundantly during the Mela (three regular full moons, all in the fair season), so that they lay in ample stores. His description also indicates that the temple had risen into great reputation only lately, since it was only Ananta, the then previous Mahanta, who had erected most of the buildings which then stood. However, that it had become important, is clear since “Almost every person that comes to bathe at Sultangunj, on the three full moons, visits the temple of Gaibinath, carries up a pot of water, and pours it over the image. At the festival of the God a good many perform this ceremony, but in order to render it more efficacious, such as have strength of head and limbs, carry the water to the summit of the spire, and dash it thence on the image. This however is a work to which many cannot pretend, as the spire is lofty, and the ascent to it is by ladders of a very tremendous appearance.”
Condition of the Ancient Sculptures near the Sanctum Sanctorum

Digambar, the Mahanta, seems to have been truly humble, as he fairly admitted before Buchanan that his community was not very knowledgeable and that apart from “the art of begging”, the utmost stretch of science they possessed was the ability to chant some mantras (forms of prayer), which interestingly, none of them understood. Being followers of “Sankara Acharji”, their buildings were all dedicated to Shiva. Even as they denied any knowledge of the state of the island prior to the arrival of their first Mahanta, Buchanan mentioned that it was clearly evident that the place had previously been of religious sanctity since there existed vast numbers of engravings of very great antiquity which represented various personages “received by all sects of Hindus as distinguished beings, among which I observed Parasuram, Narayan and Lakshmi, Ananta sleeping on a snake, with the goose of Brahma flying over him, Krishna and Radha, Narasingha, Ganes, Hanuman, and Siva”. Below the buildings of the Sanyasis, he noticed a small temple dedicated to Parasnath, the 23rd teacher of the sect of Jains, and was informed by the Sanyasis that Baidyanath had given orders prohibiting Jain worship on his sacred rock. He interpreted that the Sanyasis had stopped the practice of Jaina worship at the site, but, however also mentioned that “Some Jains however, I am told, still come privately to this place. The temple of this sect, now standing, seems evidently to be a very modern work, the authority of the Sannyasis having probably been unable until lately to expel the heretics.”

He next described the hill in possession of the Muslims, with the “monument of a saint called Baiskaran” (interpreted as ‘Vyasa karna’ by Dr R C P Singh). He also conjectured that since the Hindus had no native appellation for the place, but universally called it Sultanganj, which was a Persian, or rather an Arabic word (indicating a marketplace named after some Sultan), the celebrity of the place may have arisen from some old religion, which had diminished, but was found celebrated on the rocks covered with figures totally unconnected with the religious entities in current possession, one being sacred to Shiva and the other to Mohammed. He further mentioned that the hill in possession of the Mohammedans, had also earlier belonged to the Hindu worship, as indicated by the numerous figures carved on its granite, exactly in the same style as those on the rocks of the island. Among the various sculptures he encountered, the ones representing “a priapus (Lingga) supported by nymphs (Nayikas) and a female in a reclining posture surrounded by human heads, and said to represent a female devil (Rakshasi) surrounded by the heads of her daughters”, were noted as being the most remarkable and were attributed to the era of the Karna Rajas.
Buchanan learnt about an interesting tradition regarding capture of the hill by a ‘Pir’ i.e. a Mohammedan saint, from whom the then Keeper (Khadim), boasted of a descent. The Pir, who was probably erroneously referred as “Baiskaran’ (name probably derived from Vyasakarna), was stated to have come from the west with 2 holy companions, and initially settled on the Kherhi hill, where upon having learned, “that the hill near Sultangunj was in possession of a Kanphatti Yogi, highly venerated among the heathen for his sanctity, went to the place, in order to demonstrate the vanity of the Pagan.” In Buchanan’s description, there the two worthies, ventured to challenge each other to prove the veracity and respective values of their doctrines, by the dangerous trial of miraculous authority. The Yogi, by a miraculous power called ‘Gotika parkas’, which many holy men were thought to possess, and which the keeper did not dispute, began to mount, and raised his seat some hundred feet into the air. Upon this the Mohammedan saint waxed wroth, and prayed to God, “who smote the pagan, so that he fell to the ground and perished”. The neighbouring Hindu chiefs, on hearing of the disaster, assembled, and intended to punish the Mohammedan saint, but, before they could reach the hill, all, except one old man, were miraculously struck blind, and solicited forgiveness, which was granted, and sight restored “to even the infidels”. After this incident, the chiefs settled some lands for the saint, which his descendants still enjoyed. Buchanan, however, felt that the story was unbelievable and was surprised to note that it was swallowed even by the Hindus.
The Pir is said to have built the small mosque on the hill, and adjoining to it a dark chamber or dungeon called Hejrah, which was regarded as sacred, owing to his having remained there for 40 days and nights, without tasting food or drink. East of the chamber, the saint and several of his successors were seen to have been buried. On a slab of stone, which the saint used to kneel during prayers, he was shown a small mark, surrounded by a red stain, which was attributed to an European gentleman, who had struck the stone with a spear, when immediately blood flowed from the part, and thus left the indelible stain. The mosque was then in tolerable order, but other buildings formerly occupied by the descendants, had become entirely ruinous, and the then possessor occupied a thatched house below. However, both Hindus and Mohammedans, when in distress, continued to make occasional offerings, and at the two festivals of Id and Bakrid not above 50 or 100 of the faithful assembled.
On this rock, Buchanan found a Gymnosophist from the west, who came towards him and, “in by no means a conciliatory tone”, complained thus “This is a vile country; at home I could get a rupee and piece of cloth from everyone I met, here no one gives anything. The rhetoric was not at all suited to find access to my pockets and I advised him by all means to return home, lest the police should lay hold of him; for he was an exceedingly indecent fellow. He did not go entirely naked, as many that I have seen, for he had a good rug on his back and shoulders to keep him warm; but his middle parts, before, were totally naked, and besmeared with ashes to render them more conspicuous.”
Babu Rajendralala Mitra, in 1864, described Jahngira as being “the first object of interest which arrests the attention of the traveller” ascending the Ganga from Bhagalpur and remarked that “Its natural beauty and romantic situation have long since dedicated it to the service of religion; and Jangirah, the name of the rock in question, has been associated with many a tale of love and arms. It stands at a distance of about a hundred yards from the right bank immediately opposite to the mart of Sultanganj, and is surmounted by a small stone temple which is visible from a great distance, and serves as a beacon tower to the mariner.” Interestingly, the traumatic neglect of the sculptures, as experienced during my visit, was felt even in his time as evident from his note “Along with him (Gaibinath) are associated a number of statues and images whom the resident priests hold in such slender respect that they did not object to my scratching some of them with a penknife to ascertain the nature of the stones of which they are made.”

Later, Cunningham also witnessed the congregation of pilgrims during the “full moon of Magh, near the end of February, 1879.” and noted “For three whole days the people were arriving from all quarters, in a continuous stream all day long, and for two days afterwards all the roads were thronged with people carrying away vessels of water of the Ganges from Jahngira ghat. Most of these people were going to the famous shrine of Baijnath at Deogarh in the Birbhum district. I estimated the number of pilgrims at from 40 to 50 thousand.” He mentioned that the name Gebinath and Ajgebinath, meant “formed by nature” and that formerly it was called “Anadnath”. He noted that the pile of granite rocks rose up boldly from the water to a height of 70 to 80 feet in gigantic masses, only slightly separated from each other by narrow fissures and surrounded at the base by huge blocks rounded by the weather. Many of the blocks undermined by the river had slipped from their original places, as proved by the sloping positions of some of the sculptures, which was especially noticeable in the standing figure of the Ganga, which was then about 38 degrees out of the perpendicular, and as noted above, has now been buried within the sand. During his visit, there was only one safe landing place on the south side, from which a steep flight of rough steps led to the top.

Cunningham suggested that the name of the hill island was originally Jahnavigira, or  “Jahnu’s house”, which was gradually shortened to Jahngira, just as Rajagriha became Rajgir. Confirming the origins of the name from Rishi Jahnu, he also quoted, but rejected, another contemporary local belief about the name having been derived from Jahangir, a Mughal Emperor, who was supposed to have issued a firman reinstating one Harinath Bharati, a Mahant or Sanyasi, who was driven away from the island by some Mohammedans. Cunningham made attempts to locate the firman, said to have existed on a copper plate, but, however, neither he nor his assistant Beglar, who stayed for a longer duration, could procure and see what everybody had heard of, but which only one Gajadhar Pandit professed to have seen. At present, nothing is known about any such firman. With the name spelt as Jahannabi-gira by an informant, he confirmed it as being a Persianized form of the Hindu Jahnavi-gira and calculated a date of around 1500 A.D. for the foundation of the concurrent site, correlating from the account of Buchanan, who had mentioned that the founding Mahant, of the order still in occupation of the island, had lived 13 generations prior to him, after assigning an average age of 25 years for each. In refutation of association of the site with Jahangir, he also noted that the masjid on the Baiskaran promontory, said to have been built after the Mohammedans had been obliged to give up the Jahngira rock, was a building of the Pathan style, and apparently of much older date or a full century before the reign of Jahangir.
Ancient Sculptures amidst Modern Constructions, Jahngira
The confusion regarding association of the site with Jahangir seems to have originated due to similarity in name with the Mughal ruler. Oldham in a footnote in Buchanan’s Journal, confirmed that the name had originated from Rishi Jahnu, but, also quoted a note in ‘Voyages’ of Nicolas de Graaf, who, during his trip to Patna in 1670, had walked from “Jangira” to “Gorgatta”, i.e. from Jahngira to Ghorghat, and on the way saw “the ruined palace of Jahangir, after whom the promontory of which I have just spoken is called….. this palace was almost entirely destroyed during the civil wars, but one can well judge from what still remains of the walls and of the arcades and pillars, which were very tall, that it had been a very fine building”, thus referring to the tradition connecting the site with Jahangir. He further referred to an old masjid ascribed to Jahangir, said to have been repaired by Raja Rahmat ‘Ali Khan of Kharakpur in “Bara Jahangira” and of other buildings said to have been erected under the orders of that emperor including remains of a tower-like structure called by some as the Kachahri of Jahangir, to the north of the village, in river Ganga, even as he could find no record of Jahangir himself having ever visited the vicinity, and thus documented the above traditions “for what they are worth”. Even as one can still doubt the origin of Jahngira’s name, what is undeniable perhaps is the ancient tradition of pilgrimage from the site to the Deoghar temple and also to other prominent Shiva temples in India, as noted by Buchanan.

Ancient Sculptures on the Rock Face

The base of the rocky island consists of piles of gigantic granite blocks, many of which are covered with sculptures in high relief. Over the years since originally sculpted, due to constant exposure to weather and river action, especially during the floods and the monsoons, some of them have almost weathered away. Though they have been briefly described by several scholars including R L Mitra, Cunningham, S Sahai, Asher, R C P Singh and others, however upon reading the accounts, I could gather that a holistic description from both iconographical and historical perspectives probably still remains incomplete. As one ascends the hill island, atop which lies the imposing shrine of Ajgaibinath, one comes across several small temple like enclosures between sculpted rock-boulders constructed using different building materials, which are mostly seen as redesigned with concrete and even coated with modern paint, thereby often destroying the ancient character.
A view as one descends from Ajgaibinath

As I started exploring the sculptures on the rock boulder facing the river, above which a part of the modern temple has been constructed, the damage caused from a perennial discharge of waters from within the temple apart from that due to a compilation of garbage to the ancient sculptures, was quite noticeable. However, even despite the ongoing damage, the existing specimens still did retain much of their former charm which was felt more at the time when the golden rays of the sun seemed to be infusing radiance, as seen in the photograph taken just before sunset. On a cursory look, the multitude of sculptures represented various deities engaged in different emotions varying from hunting to love and worship, and whether all these were sculpted together or at different points of time and whether they were originally intended to together convey any particular episode in mythology was not clear from their abrupt placement and even repetition of images of the same deities at several places. They represent mostly Hindu deities, both Saiva and Vaishnava, and some also carry inscriptions.

Sculpture on the riverside, Jahngira

On an initial look, I felt that the sculptures appeared more plastic than those at Patharghata (referred in the article on Vikramshila6), and thus felt that they could be from the early Gupta period, considering an increase in elasticity and better depiction of emotions on stone with the passage of time. Later, however, I discovered that most scholars too had initially ascribed all the sculptures to the Gupta period; but later dated some to the Gupta period and others to the post Gupta period, with only the Sheshashayi and Varaha Vishnu together with another few small figures in the rock, being assigned an early attribution7. In such case, it may not appear surprising as to why the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims Fa Hian and Hieun Tsang failed to mention this prominent site, which, however, still remains so due to presence of the large but again unmentioned Buddhist monastery in the vicinity and thus the reason for skipping the site could have been since this was almost an exclusive Hindu monument, which thus may have received their scant attention. The numerous sculptures include only two representations of the Buddha, of which, according to Cunningham, one may represent the Buddha incarnation of Vishnu8.

Buddha at Jahngira

Cunningham assigned it to 2nd or 3rd century A.D., while later Bloch assigned a date around 7th or 8th century A.D. From the nearby remains at Kherhi Hill9, it is evident that artists in the region were quite active during the late 5th to 6th century A.D., and have left behind various ancient sculptures including that of a superbly carved Narasimha Vishnu10 in dark grey stone on the west side of the hill. Singh opined that even as Jahngira was adorned with a few carvings in the Gupta period, it was elaborately embellished probably in the 8th century A.D., to such an extent that hardly any part of the surface remained without sculptures.

The Sculpture of Revanta
As one looks at the boulder facing the river, attention is immediately drawn by what looks like a victory procession in which a king riding a horse is seen with a set of musicians leading his way and followed by two attendants, one carrying an umbrella or canopy signifying the royal presence, followed by another attendant seemingly carrying some object. Two dogs are also noticed as closely following the procession, thereby indicating a scene post hunting in which the hunt (probably a boar) is being carried by the attendant, while the king and other attendants appear in a mood of rejoice. The mysterious sculpture was initially misunderstood by Cunningham as representing Kalki, the last incarnation of Vishnu, probably due to the attribute of riding on a horse. However, Dr R C P Singh rightly identified it as Revanta11, mentioned in the Puranas as the son of Surya, whose interesting story starts with his mother Surenyu, the daughter of Vishwakarma, who initially delivered two sons i.e. Yama and Manu, and a daughter Yami (Yamuna), for her husband, but, however, gradually started avoiding his company due to excessive heat and glory associated with his persona and subsequently fled in disguise as a mare towards the colder regions of the north. Before departure, however, she left her ‘Chaya’ (shadow of like appearance) as a deception which was soon discovered by Surya, who thereafter followed her in the form of a horse. Then upon conjugal union, three more sons, namely the twin Asvins, the celestial physicians, and Revanta, the lord of horses and horsemen, were born.
Revanta (Jahngira)
According to the Brihatsamhita of Varahmihira, Revanta should be depicted as ‘riding on horse-back and accompanied by a party engaged in the sport of hunting. In December, 2016, during an exploratory field trip at Rajauna (Chowki) in Lakhisarai, I had also noticed a similar depiction of Revanta in a hunting scene sculpted on a stone slab, lying below a tree. At Jahngira, even as the sculpture has highly weathered away, the essential details nevertheless remain. Sitting astride on horseback, Revanta is shown wearing top boots and a conical head dress, in the company of a hunting party. Unlike some other depictions12, which include an archer shooting at a boar, here, is represented an attendant behind, seemingly carrying the body of the dead animal on his head, thereby indicating a post-hunt scene. S. Sahai on basis of the palaeographic evidence, placed it in the Gupta period, thereby identifying it as the earliest known representation of the deity. Asher, however, placed it in the 7th century A.D.

Vishnu Sculptures

Sheshashayi Vishnu (Jahngira)

Apart from the prominent figure of Revanta, the northern rock-face has a multitude of sculptures depicting different deities. Further, as one ascends the steps to reach the sanctum sanctorum of Ajgaibinath, and thereafter descends along a different series of steps, a whole multitude of sculptures is witnessed all along. Among these sculptures, Lord Vishnu is represented either in the well known Chaturbhuj (four-armed) form as standing with the Ayudhapurushas or in the form of one of his several incarnations like Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana and Parasurama. A chamber encountered immediately as one descends contains Vishnu depicted in the Sheshashayi form, stated to be of earlier date (probably from the late 5th or early 6th century), as against most other sculptures dated to the 8th century A.D. In the Puranic story of creation, as the creator is engaged in eternal yoga, demons Madhu and Kaitabha, also just born, threaten the new born Brahma, but are ultimately slayed by Vishnu himself. The scene is poetically described by Kalidasa in Raghuvansha with personified figures of Gada and Chakra, Garuda, as attending the Lord, whose feet are being shampooed by Goddess Lakshmi. An elaborate description under the name of Padmanabha also exists in the Vishnudharmottara shastra.

Here, four-armed Vishnu is represented as reclining upon the coils of Sheshanaga (the cosmic serpent) in the Kshira- sagar (ocean of milk) and supporting his head with one hand in the customary fashion, as if to suggest his momentary arousal from the sleep during which got slayed the demons Madhu and Kaitabha, shown in the upper right portion. A conch shell is held in one of his left hands with the other holding the stalk of the lotus issuing from his navel and forming the seat of Brahma. The free right hand holds a rosary, as held by other Vishnu images of this area from the Gupta period. The image seems significantly placed, since the river waters serve to remind of the primeval ocean, while the rock metaphorically becomes the floating firmament created just before the creator resumed his cosmic slumber. The sculpture is iconographically remarkable in several ways. Here Vishnu is depicted as holding the stalk of the lotus upon which Brahma, usually depicted with three heads (the fourth behind deemed as invisible), is represented with only one head, while Lakshmi, Ayudhapurushas and other accessory figures are conspicuous by their absence. Instead of a Kiritamukuta, the conventional head-dress of Vishnu, here jatamukuta decorated with a rosary, yet another rarity, are together skilfully suggestive of a meditative mood as in the sculpture at Udayagiri near Vidisha. Artistically, the figure appears to be a handiwork of the Gupta artist. Importantly, Sheshashayi images are generally rare in Northern India, with the terracotta plaque on the Bhitargaon temple (5th century A.D.) and the sculpted relief at Dashavtara temple, Deogarh (6th century A.D.), being the only known examples from the Gupta period.
Chaturbhuj Vishnu and Surya (Jahngira)

Among the imposing sculptures, is a befittingly bejewelled standing image of four-armed Vishnu, carrying an un-blossomed lotus in the upper right hand and a conch shell in the corresponding left. The two lower hands are placed over the personified figures of the gada, being a female figure in tribhanga pose and identified by a part of mace extended over the head, on the right and the chakra, represented by a male figure with his right hand upraised and the left in kartyavalambita pose on the left. According to canonical works, Vishnu should have one face and four arms, of which one of the right should carry a fully bloomed lotus with the other placed on the head of personified female figure of gada (Gada Devi) and one of the left should carry a conch while the other should be placed on the Chakrapurusha, depicted ornamented (sarvabharanabhusitah) with a big belly (lambodarah) and with eyes well open as in dancing. The Earth- goddess should be portrayed between the legs of Vishnu. Thus, the Vishnu figure from Jahngira substantially tallies in iconographic details, the only important deviation being the absence of the Earth-goddess. In the opinion of S Sahai, the sculpture belonged to the Gupta period since it compared well with an early Gupta stucco figure from Rajgir and with those from Mathura and Udayagiri in terracotta and stone respectively. However, Asher, ascribed it to the 8th century A.D.

Vishnu, Jahngira
Another figure of Vishnu from Sultanganj, with some minor variations, is quite similar. Carrying a lotus bud in upper right hand and a conch shell in the corresponding left hand, one of lower hands is placed on a male figure to the right and the other on a female figure to the left. It is, however, difficult to identify the standing figures with the Ayudhapurushas as their emblems are not visible. A devotee is seen to the left. A third figure of Vishnu also shows him four-armed and in a standing position, and is similar, except in that Chakrapurusha stands to the right while Gada Devi is placed to the left. The drapery, however, is not diaphanous and is rather indicated by the deep incisions and covers the body from the waist to the knees only, probably representing acute degeneration in sculptural art with the passage of time. On stylistic ground, in view of such degenerated delineation of form and crudity of incised drapery, the figure has been assigned to a period not earlier than the 13th century A.D.

Varaha

Varaha (Jahngira)

Very few sculptures at Jahngira are stated to be contemporary with the Sheshashayi Vishnu. Of special importance, however, is a fine sculpture of two armed Varaha (the Boar incarnation) showing similar vitality, and also significantly placed just above the river waters and representing the deity in the form of a boar having plucked the earth from the waters below. With left leg resting upon the coils of the Sheshanaga and the right planted on the earth in a slanting position, the human bust of the cosmic serpent with hood canopy is represented between the legs of varaha, as touching his feet with both hands. The two armed figure of uplifted Bhudevi is shown seated on his left shoulder in an elegant pose, taking support of slightly tilted up muzzle with her right hand, and holding an indistinct object in her left. The image is soberly adorned with vanamala and wristlets, and with bodily proportions having the rhythm of feminine elegance.

The sculpture is unique in several respects as most early medieval sculptures, like those at Badami and Mahabalipuram, ascribed approximately to the post-Gupta period, are seen to follow injunctions of the canonical texts which describe such an image with four arms. However, the sculpture here has only two arms, which when viewed along with the two-armed figure from Udayagiri, points to an early date. Compared artistically, the master-piece from Udayagiri is seen as executed on an epic scale, incorporating all possible details like the wavy ocean, the river Goddesses Ganga and Yamuna, figures of the king of the ocean, Brahma, Shiva, etc., but, the sculpture here is notable for the brevity of its composition, accommodating only such details as deemed indispensable and is more realistic in its conception and modelling. The massive body of the deity in itself depicts the forceful physical act of deliverance, to achieve which, the Udayagiri sculpture had to depict numerous attendants with the quiescent attitude. The same effect has been produced here only by the contrast in the modelling of the two figures. The figure on the whole, strikes a brilliant balance between compulsion and conception – a classical characteristic of the Gupta art.

Narasimha Sculpture

Narasimha is represented as four-armed in the pratyalidha pose, with the right leg placed slantingly on the ground and the left being on the throne upon which is placed demon Hiranyakashyap’s loose body with his belly being torn by the lower pair of his hands, while the two upper hands are represented as pulling own hair in a gesture of wrath and anger. The figure is adorned with Vanamala, necklace and bhujabandha and a girdle is seen round the waist supporting the lower end of the drapery. With the modelling of the figure being crude and rough, it is generally placed in the late medieval period.

Narsimha (Jahngira)

Parasurama

Parasurama (Jahngira)

Wearing yajnopavita and dhoti with folds gathered in between the legs, Parasurama is represented with a heavy jata on the head and as two- armed in the samapadasthanaka pose, with the right hand in the Varada- mudra, and the left holding a parasu, placed on the waist (Katyalambita). The interesting figure is different from canonical norms, which prescribe a battle axe in the left hand with the right in a pointing gesture. Further, even though Parasurama is invariably shown as two armed in the dasavtara panels, it has been suggested that separate figures of him should be endowed with four arms. The modelling of the figure is, however, neither balanced nor proportionate.

Shiva Sculptures

Shiva Parvati (Jahngira)

Close to the four-armed figures of Vishnu, one notices a standing four- armed image of Ardhanarisvara Shiva in the tribhanga pose, with the right lower hand carrying a rosary and the upper holding a battle-axe trident intertwined by a serpent. The front left hand of the female half is bent and placed on the waist holding a mirror, while the lower probably holds an object which appears to be a lotus. With a halo behind the head, a Jata on the right side and properly groomed hair on the left side, a well wrought necklace adorns the neck. The male half of the body is draped from the waist to the knee only, while the female one from the waist to much below the knee. The figure has been assigned to a comparatively later date13 in the Pala period14; but Dr Singh, on stylistic consideration, mentioned that it seemed to belong to the Gupta tradition and may be safely placed in the post-Gupta epoch.

Shiva Parvati, Ancient Inscriptions near Murali Hill
In another sculpture on the same hill, Shiva has been depicted along with the Goddess Uma. Such Uma-Maheshvara images form a distinct class of the Umalingana murtis which, in the art of Eastern India, were more common during the 8th century A.D. than previous single anthropomorphic images of Shiva. Here, the superb sculpture, carved out of a part of the rock now shielded by the modern temple, represents the two-armed deity as seated facing to the right in lalitasana with his left leg folded and placed on the seat and the right one pendant and placed over his bull seated below him. Uma is seated at ease, to the left of Shiva, slightly reclining towards him and looking at him affectionately. Shiva has been shown touching the chin of the goddess lovingly with his left hand, while the right hand is hanging leisurely near his legs with the trident being placed behind his right shoulder. The attenuated, sensitively modelled style of this image recalls the earlier Gupta sculptures at this very site and at Patharghata, near Kahalgaon.

Surya

Sculpture of Surya (Jahngira), under threat of survival

Another prominent sculpture is the now threatened standing figure of Surya in a chariot, which is a more elaborate conception than single figures attended only by Danda and Pingala found elsewhere in Bihar. Represented standing in the samabhanga pose with upraised hands holding fully blossomed lotus flowers by their stalks, he is putting up a Kuluta, and has a dagger hanging on his left side, the hilt and other parts of which are clearly visible. He is accompanied by his two attendants Danda and Pingala, the two female archers Usha and Pratyusha and his charioteer, the legless Aruna, besides two more female attendants standing on his either side. In the sculpture are also seen the single wheel and the seven horses of the chariot beneath. The sculpture is suggested by Asher as being more similar to images from Bengal than from Magadha. Apart from this, there are several other images of Surya too on different boulders. Under the prominent figure of Surya exists an inscription in two lines “in well-formed characters of the early Gupta period” recording a pious gift of one chihadantta15.

Surya (Jahngira)
Surya (Jahngira)
Surya and Vishnu (Jahngira)

Sculptures on and near the Murali Hill

Murali Hill

After examining the sculptures on the erstwhile island, when I was moving out of the temple premises, my attention was immediately drawn towards various surrounding boulders, most of them being located near the adjoining hill named Murali Pahari or Bais Karan (Vyasa Karna) protruding into the river from the mainland and presently distinguished by a mosque on the summit. Similar to the sculptures and inscriptions on the rocks in the island, these boulders facing the river are also covered with sculptures and inscriptions. The name Bais-Karan is believed to have derived from its association with King Karna of the local tradition (also remembered at nearby Karngarh and at the main Karngadh in Champanagar apart from another Karngadh within the Fort premises at Munger16. The significance of ‘Bais’ is however, not confirmed so far and Dr R C P Singh indicated the name as originating from ‘Vyasa Karna’.

Rock Boulder near Murali Hill with Chisel Marks

The Rare ‘Rudra Pada’ !

The Rudra Pada

Just below the Murali hill, exists a neglected but massive rock boulder which has the potential of transforming the identity of the site for popular tourism. The reason for such potential is since among various sculpted panels on its face containing different images of Shiva and other deities, it has a unique sculpture, a representation of the foot prints of Shiva, which is probably not found elsewhere, with an inscription below, in boldly cut Gupta age (4th/5th Century AD) letters, which was also noted by Cunningham, who read it as ‘Rudra Mahalaya’ or ”Rudra-mahala’ and thus called it as ‘Rudrapada’. It seems that in the past, this particular rock boulder, which has a Shiva Linga sculpted on the top facing the sky, may actually have been associated with some legend regarding the footprints of Lord Shiva, which has probably been lost and remains unknown. That the site had been surely popular in the Gupta times is clear from the existence of inscriptions not only on the Rudrapada, but also on other sculptures including one under a large head in a niche “in beautifully formed Gupta characters”, and reading as “Kumarasya17”, and under another figure in two lines of Gupta characters reading “Dedharmmayam Vahakasya (i.e. a pious gift of Vahaka)18”. Bloch summarily mentioned two of these inscriptions as belonging to the 7th or 8th century and nothing further. Later, D. R. Patil mentioned that the inscriptions had not been noticed or transcribed further. However, during my visit in 2016, I could notice and closely photograph two of these inscriptions.

The Historic Rudrapada lies in utter neglect !

The boulder remains in utter neglect, having been forgotten today not only by the modern tourist but also by the pious pilgrims, who throng the nearby temple and ghats during the month of Shravan, without paying heed to what was once historically acknowledged and inscribed as being the footprint of Shiva. I wondered that if the significance of the inscribed site was known to the general public, then there might have been tremendous interest, but due to ignorance, it remained so utterly neglected, that it was actually being used for the purpose of drying out cow-dung cakes by some local resident. What a pity for a site with such unique heritage ! At that time itself, I wished that my efforts through the blog would help to create better awareness about the site and restore some semblance in order to protect it from unscrupulous selfish interests.

The Rudra Pada Rock viewed from above

Unresolved Sculpture of a Resting Lady or ‘Sadyojata’

An interesting sculpture of a resting lady exists on a boulder near Murali hillock, which was described by Cunningham as “lying on a bed with her head resting on her left hand and her right hand holding a bunch of flowers, which a monkey is snatching away.” D. R. Patil mentions that this figure may have been the female devil or Rakshasi mentioned by Buchanan as “surrounded by the heads of her daughters.” A further study of the representations was found necessary by Patil. Buchanan has referred to a sculpture representing “a Priapus (Linga) supported by nymphs (Nayikas)”, which does not seem to have been noticed by Cunningham. As I examined the sculpture closely, I felt that it was definitely trying to represent some ancient story, but, inquiries with some local scholars at Sultanganj resulted in various descriptions including some mentioning it as being Yakshini and her associates, some others claiming it as being the Goddess Parvati, while some others as representing Sita, with Hanuman being the monkey and the Rakshasis of Lanka being represented by the heads around.

Unresolved Sculpture from a distance

The sculpture nevertheless is well executed on stone and commands attention from a significant distance. I could get no conclusive answer immediately and had been wondering till I read an article published in “Anga Sanskriti – Vividh Ayaam” by Dr O P Pandey, previously the curator of Bhagalpur Museum and had a discussion with him. Dr Pandey has identified the sculpture as representing ‘Sadyojata’, a just born form of Rudra, described in the Vishnu Purana and Srimad Bhagwat and represented in the form of a mother and new born son. Dr Pandey has mentioned that such statues were prevalent in Bihar and Bengal around the 8th century and one such has also been found at Vikramshila from the 9th/10th century. In the article he estimated the Sadyojata at Murali Pahari to be earlier and from the 6th/7th century, which, however, upon discussion, was resolved as surely being the handiwork of the Gupta artist with almost the same date as the inscribed Rudrapada.

Unresolved Sculpture or Sadyojata

Other Sculptures

On the Murli hillock, a mutilated sculpture represents four-armed Vishnu, seated on the shoulders of Garuda, with the lower pair of his hands, holding something indistinct and resting upon the corresponding thighs. One of his upper hands is placed on a standing male figure to the left and the other on the standing female figure to the right. The two- armed figure of Garuda with a snake encircled around the neck is depicted with the right leg resting on the ground and the left knee raised upwards. The sculpture, however, has not partly followed canonical injunctions, as laid in Vishnudharmottara, in which Vishnu seated on Garuda should be represented with four faces and eight arms, but has depicted the Garuda as per rules, according to which, when carrying Vishnu on his back, should not depict more than two hands, both of which should be holding the feet of the Lord. According to A. K. Maitra (Rupam, No. 1, Jan, 1920) ‘an agreeable humanised form’ of Garuda is the development of the later medieval period. The Sultanganj sculpture of Vishnu on Garuda, on consideration of artistic style, is suggested as being from the late medieval period in view of the completely humanised form of Garuda. Another sculpture on a boulder faced just below the hill depicts Vishnu in his Vamana avatar, with raised legs as if extending itself in a position to measure the entire universe.

Damaged Sculpture of Vishnu near Murali Hill
Sculptures on a boulder near Murali Hill
Rock Boulder near Murali Hill
Vamana Avtar on the Murali Hill

Mosque

Atop Murali hill, on a brick-built platform exists an old Jami Masjid, with the platform supported by a retaining wall facing the river. From its conspicuous position amidst Hindu ruins, it is supposed to represent the site of another ancient Hindu Temple or Buddhist Stupa, not clearly described by Cunningham, who assigned it to around 1500 AD from its Pathan style of architecture. Bloch, who referred to the mosque with “the curved Bengali battlement, the only instance of this style which I know of outside Bengal proper”, mentioned that underneath that mosque was once the site of “a large Buddhist stupa”, but, however, no grounds of such conclusion were documented.

Mosque on the top of Murali Hill

Remains of the Buddhist Monastery

Apart from the sculpted rocks, there are several other antiquarian remains at Sultanganj including but not limited to a mound called Karngarh, first noticed by Buchanan and the vast remains of a Buddhist Monastery, first documented by Babu Rajendra Lala Mitra. The Monastery, which seems to have escaped the attention of Buchanan, was discovered in 1861-62, sometime before Mitra’s visit, in 1864, since at that time construction of the railway line was going on and a very large portion of the mound had been dug away to provide brick ballast for many miles of the new track. While at the time of Buchanan’s survey, forty years ago, Sultanganj contained about 250 houses, of which only two were brick-built and three tiled, by Mitra’s time, the number of houses had quintupled, and the main road in front of the mart was lined by many pucca godowns.

Copper Sculpture of Buddha from Sultanganj in Birmingham Museum (Source -Wikipedia)
Mr Harris, the then Resident Engineer, East Indian Railway, had built a house for himself on the highest part of the mound. In the course of excavation, when brick walls began to appear, Harris attempted to explore the mound more carefully. The railway station of Sultanganj stood behind the mart and at a distance of about half a mile to the south of it. The space between the mart and the railway station formed a quadrangle of 1200 feet by 800, which then seemed to never have been under much cultivation, and was covered by the debris of old buildings, the foundations of which were lately excavated for railway ballast. From the trenches opened along the line of the foundations, it was revealed that the place was at one time divided into courtyards having lines of small cells or cloisters on all four sides, which was further confirmed by the discovery of a series of six chambers in a line at the south-western corner of the quadrangle. These chambers formed a part of the western side of a large courtyard on the north of which Harris had brought to light the foundations of two similar chambers. The southern and the eastern facades remained yet unexplored. But the accumulation of rubbish on those sides, rising to the height of 10 to 20 feet, clearly indicated that chambers corresponding to those on the west and north were to be met with under it.
Harris with the then discovered Colossal Copper Buddha Statue (Source – Wikipedia)

At the middle of this long ridge of rubbish, Mr. Harris found the foundation and the side pillars of a large gateway which was evidently one of the principal entrances to the quadrangle. Similar gateways probably once existed on the other three sides, but their vestiges were no longer traceable. The accumulation of rubbish at the south-east corner was greater than any where else, and on it was situated his bungalow. The chambers excavated at the south-western side were not all of the same dimensions and measured within the walls from 12’x10’6” to 14’x12’. The depth from the top of the plinth to the lowest part of the foundation (the only portion now in situ) was 13 feet, with the upper floors having openings or hatchways through which people descended to the bottom, and used the different stories as cellars or store-rooms. No valuable property or remains of corn or other goods were, however, traced in these cellars, as most probably they had been removed before the monastery fell into the hands of the destroyer. The interiors of the walls had never been plastered, but the front, facing the courtyard, had a thick coating of sand and stucco such as were not to be seen in then contemporaneous Indian houses.

The bricks used in the building of these chambers measured 13”x9”x2.5”, and in density, colour and appearance were similar to those of the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya, Sanchi, Sarnath and other old Buddhist sites, giving a close idea of the era when they were in use19. In front of the chambers existed the remains of a hall or verandah, the floor of which was on a level with the highest floor of the chambers, and seemed to have been made of concrete and stucco, and painted over in fresco of a light ocherous colour. Mitra conjectured that probably, there was a range of square pillars, forming a verandah or pillared “hall” which resembled a modern Bengali dalan. Inside the court-yard there were traces of drains consisting of “water-pipes of granite”, similar to those noticed at Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and elsewhere.
Copper Statue as sketched in Mitra’s report
The most important relic discovered by Harris, in course of his excavations, in 1861-62, was a colossal copper statue of Buddha, 7’3” in height, the tallest such found in India, in a standing position, found lying on a side of the hall described above. The figure was erect in the attitude of delivering a lecture and in this respect bore a close resemblance to the sandstone statues found at Sarnath by Cunningham. The statue seemed to have been forcibly moved from its pedestal of granite, found lying more or less in its original position. The statue was secured to this pedestal by two bolts, the remains of which were still visible. It seemed to have suffered no injury from the hands of the destroyer, except for the mutilation of the left foot across the ankle. Mitra described that the artist had adopted the tall North Indian figure as a model for the sculpture, but not paid due attention to proportion, since though it was more than about 7 feet in height, head itself was only 12.5”, making a ratio of around 1 to 6, instead of the usual European standard of 1 to 8. He attributed this to the common Indian belief about the hands reaching down to the knees as an emblem of divinity and universal sovereignty. This image, it appears, from what Bloch states in 1903, had been carried away to Manchester and is presently placed in the Birmingham Museum.
Stone Sculpture of Buddha from Sultanganj in British Museum (Source -Wikipedia)
Mitra mentioned that the statue’s material was a very pure copper cast in two layers, the inner one in segments on an earthen mould, and held together by iron bands which were originally 3/4” thick, but were then very much worn down by rust. The outer layer of copper had also oxidised in different places and become quite spongy. The casting of the face down to the breast, was effected in one piece; the lower parts down to the knee in another, and then the legs, feet, hands and back in several pieces. A hole had been bored through the breast, and chips had been knocked off from other parts of the body since its exhumation, with a view to ascertain whether or not it contained hidden treasure such as was said to have been found by the invader Mahmood within the belly of the famous idol of Somnath, but it led to the discovery of nothing beyond the mould on which the figure had been cast. The mould looked like a friable cinder which originally consisted of a mixture of sand, clay, charcoal and paddy husk, of the last of which traces were still visible under the microscope. Babu Kanailala De, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Medical College, who then analysed the black substance, mentioned that it consisted of Silica, 73.50, Oxide of Copper, peroxide of iron, alumina, lime and magnesia, 18 and Organic matter and moisture, 8.50.
Close to the colossal Buddha, were also discovered two resembling small figures (also represented in Mitra’s sketch) measuring 1’10.5” and 1’5” in height respectively and carved in Basalt. These figures had each an attendant devotee kneeling before them with folded hands, and the Buddhist creed “Ye dharma hetu…”, engraved in the Gupta character on the pedestal. The small one also had the same on the back. Among other relics found during Harris’s excavation were included a mutilated terracotta figure, a large conch shell, a large number of well preserved cowries, a piece of elephant bone, slip of ivory, iron axes destroyed by rust and other miscellaneous tools and items made of iron, copper disk or cover destroyed by rust, sitting figure of Buddha in copper, partially destroyed by rust, three other partially damaged standing copper figures of Buddha, number of bits of copper domestic utensils, miniature terracotta chaityas containing within the seals of the Buddhist creed, terracotta lamps, head of Vishnu in baked clay with the seven headed cobra overhead (the only Hindu relic found which was seasoned with paddy and glazed in red), fragments of encaustic tiles, stone lamps, and others. From the articles found, the building evidently was a large Buddhist monastery or Vihara, such as those that once existed at Sarnath, Sanchi, Bodhgaya, Manikyala and other places of note, and at the four corners had four chapels for the use of the resident monks. Even in 1864, two of these abutted on the mart had already disappeared, and of the other two, that on the south-west yielded the relics as noted above, with the last then remaining under the railway bungalow, then considered a most promising field for the antiquary who could devote a week or two to its exploration.
Mitra explained that the little bell-shaped structures called chaityas, which occurred in alto-relievos, or in bass-reliefs stamped on small tiles, with the Buddhist creed, were miniature representations of sepulchral monuments i.e. stupas or chaityas, owing their origin to an injunction in the Buddhist scriptures which recommended the dedication of such monuments as an act of great religious merit. They were originally hemispherical and of stupendous size, rising directly from the surface of the earth like a bubble on water, and were mostly costly edifices which could be constructed only by the wealthy. But men of moderate means satisfied their religious craving by the consecration of small stone models and the poor by little terracotta figures of small value, the offering of which was very much encouraged by the priesthood, as their consecration afforded the latter a small but constant source of income. He mentioned the continuance of such similar cause even then in the offering of fictile models of horses to Satyapir and other local saints, hundreds of which could then and can still be seen about every consecrated Banian tree in Bengal.
Cunningham described the ruins and the images in his report for 1879-80, and mentioned that the monastery, which must have been quite important and reputed, belonged to the Gupta period (4th or 5th century A.D.), with the colossal statue being “clearly of the same style as the Gupta Buddhist statues which I dug up at Sarnath, Benares, in 1835-36, thus agreeing as to age with that already deduced from the inscriptions in the Gupta characters.” The other higher portion of the mound on which Harris had built a house was pulled down when Harris left and later in February, 1879, Cunningham commenced upon its excavation, which was completed by Beglar. Cunningham mentioned that a mere glance showed that it was most probably the remains of a stupa, which was turned to certainty by a few hours’ excavation, which showed that it was a solid mass of brick-work laid in regular course. The top was found to be 48 feet by 43 feet, with a height of 28 feet above the floor of the monastery excavated by Mr. Harris. He began sinking a shaft down the centre, which he was obliged to make over to Mr. Beglar after it had reached a depth of 6 feet, owing to an accident which severely sprained his knee, and kept him confined to a recumbent position for upwards of a month. The excavation was successfully carried out by Mr. Beglar down to the water level, just above which he found the relic chamber of the stupa.
Cunningham mentioned that the dome of the stupa must have been not been less than 90 feet in diameter, as the octagonal plinth on which it stood had a side of 39 feet, and a diameter of 94.146 feet. Near the bottom of this mass there was a small brick stupa, only 8 feet in diameter, standing in the midst of a square compartment, with the intervening space filled with earth. In this small stupa was a common round earthenware vessel, or ghara, standing with the mouth upwards, in which was found deposited the “Seven Precious Things” of the Buddhists namely 1. Gold, 2. Silver, 3. Crystal, 4. Sapphire, 5. Ruby, 6. Emerald and 7. Jacinth or Zircon. On removing the brick on which stood the earthen vessel, was found a cavity one-brick deep, containing a piece of bone 1 and 1/8 inch by 5/8 inch broad, imbedded in some fine red clay, and being only a few inches above the water level, which, clearly was the relic for the enshrinement of which the great stupa was erected. On cleaning two little coins, which were thickly coated with verdigris, and had consequently been taken as being of copper, one was found to be a silver coin of Maha Kshatrapa Swami Rudra Sena, the son of M. Ksh. Satya or Surya, Sena and the other of Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya, or Chandra Gupta II. (The coin of Chandra Gupta had his head on the obverse, with a peacock standing full front with expanded wings, and the legend Parama bhagavata Maharajadhiraja Sri Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya.) From these coins, the date of the stupa was deduced to have been about A.D. 250, as already inferred by Babu Rajendra Lala Mitra. Cunningham concluded that the whole of the exterior of the stupa was thickly plastered, and divided into compartments by pilasters, each compartment being filled with a figure of Buddha with various attendant figures.
Both Cunningham and Mitra mentioned that nothing was traceable about the history of the Vihara, which from its extent and style of construction, must have been a place of great repute, in the past. But its glory had set a long while ago, so much so that even the original name of the important site was lost in obscurity with the present appellation (Sultanganj) seemingly quite modern, not more than two or three centuries old, and probably due to some unknown prince in Mughal times, as generally indicated. Surprisingly, Fa Hian made no mention of it, and even Hieun Tsang, who mentioned about the ruins of several large monasteries in the neighbourhood of Champa (Bhagalpur), left no clue about it. It is to be presumed therefore that it had been ruined and forsaken, or at least had fallen into decay, before the advent of the latter Chinese traveller. From the inscriptions on the minor figures, in the Gupta character of the 3rd and 4th century, it appears that the Vihara may have been established a considerable period before that time, probably at the beginning of the Christian Era or even earlier, since Champa (modern Bhagalpur) was a place of great antiquity and importance in Eastern India which came early within the Buddhist fold and thus many Viharas and Chaityas must have been constructed within and about it, since as early as the times of the Buddha.

At present, hardly anyone in Sultanganj seems aware of the site where excavations had brought to light the remains of such a wonderful monastery. The area around the railway station and the market have become much overcrowded with buildings and structures, fundamentally different from the town which was seen by Buchanan in 1811 or by Mitra in 1864. Sultanganj is a very crowded place which doesn’t seem to have even a foothold during the monsoons when pilgrims throng the narrow lanes and alleys of the marketplace and the surroundings of the railway station. As I could not gather much during inquiries from some local residents, in order to ascertain the current status of the site, I tasked the Officer-in-charge of the Police Station to consult some learned persons in the locality who had some interest in ancient Indian history and archaeology. I was astonished the next morning to find three antiquarians from Sultanganj in my office including Mr. Sankar Sah, about whom I shall be subsequently mentioning. From them I learnt that the site where the stupa and the vihara had been found still existed in the form of a low land or cavity near the old railway station, where now existed a railway godown (malgodam). I took the opportunity to visit Sultanganj Railway station as I was leaving Bhagalpur, after my transfer to Patna, in order to check if any relic connected to the Stupa or monastery still survived, but, however, was disappointed to see that nothing remained at the site, though may still be lying buried within, which, however, could be explored only through another excavation.

Karngarh

Inquiries about the mound called Karngarh, mentioned first by Buchanan, revealed that it was presently being addressed as Krishnagarh and that a palatial house belonging to a zamindar family, had been erected upon it probably some years after Mitra’s record. Buchanan had described Karngarh as the “old fort of Korno Rajah” and as a square similar to the one at Bhagalpur (Champanagar), but not as large, being scarcely more than 4 or 5 acres. In the mound which had no cavity or any ditch, at one place, he found an outer facing of brick remains with the whole filled with bricks and fragments. Traces of a brick wall, which formed the exterior of the remains, were seen by him and the building represented by the ruins “was pretty entire until it was pulled down by Colonel Hutchison to erect a set of indigo works.” Buchanan was told that there once existed the palace of the King Karna, generally identified by the traditions of the district with the King of the same name to whom the Karngadh at Champanagar is also attributed and which seemed quite probable due to similarity in styles of construction. However, Buchanan also quoted Major Wilford (Asiatick Researches, Vol. 9, page 108), who considered that these Karnas were ruling from the 3rd century A.D. onwards and were different from the Karna of Champanagar, believed to have been a contemporary of Jarasandha, the first king of Magadha, stated to have existed in the 14th century B.C. Interestingly, Buchanan mentioned that the remains left by the latter Karna ruler, though probably only a petty chief of Bhagalpur, were far more considerable than those attributed to the monarch of India. Major Wilford referred to the latter Karna as an usurper, who confined his predecessor on the rock near the palace, surrounded by the Ganga. The Karngadh mound, stated as quite extensive and covering an area of 12 to 13 acres, was also casually noticed by Cunningham in 1879-80, who was also told that it represented a fort built by Karna.
Mitra described it as a square mound of about 400 yards on each side raised to the height of 20 feet from the plain, and then being the site of an indigo factory, having a large tank which yielded the earth of which the mound was formed, at a distance of about three quarters of a mile from the monastery. He equated it to a mud fort, which was usually found as at other Buddhist sites having monasteries, like Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Kushinagar, and others in close proximity, being a desirable source of security, since even as the principal residents of Buddhist monasteries were priests sworn to celibacy and poverty, who earned their subsistence by alms, the Viharas were not without the possession of considerable wealth. No finds of antiquities like sculptures, carvings, inscriptions, etc., had, however, been reported from the site till 1963, when D. R. Patil had compiled his report, though, it seems obvious that the mound must have been dug at places by Colonel Hutchison long ago for the buildings of the indigo factory. The mound, nevertheless, deserves to be explored further.

The Antiquity of Sultanganj –

Remains at Jahngira

Close to Sultanganj, on the road towards Munger, is the village Jahngira, which having yielded historical relics, has signs of having been inhabited since the most ancient times and still contains a lot buried within for the explorer. I visited the banks of the Ganga at Jahngira and met Mr. Shankar Sah, who, was then posted with the local post office and has now retired from service, but, remains a famous collector of ancient relics found from time to time whenever the Ganga recedes after the floods from its banks touching the village. With his assistance, I could see the sequences in time of human habitation on the banks of the Ganga which had been exposed by the river during annual flooding. From amongst the sequences visible, potsherds of Northern Black Polished Ware (600 BC to 200 BC) and others could be seen and collected. A few terracotta ring wells of about the Mauryan to Kushana (3rd Century BC to 1st Century AD) could also be seen across the banks of the Ganga.

Banks of the Ganga at Jahngira Village
Collection of Mr. Shankar Sah, Jahngira Village
Collection of Mr. Shankar Sah, Jahngira Village

It was nice to learn that Mr. Sah has been regularly collecting such relics after the annual floods and has also contributed to the museums at Bhagalpur and Munger. I revisited him on 5th January, 2020, on the way back from Bhagalpur after my transfer, and was pleased to see a newly discovered stone image along with coins and other relics. The site surely is a surviving indication of the antiquity of the region, which must have been of utmost importance in ancient times.

Civilisational Sequences seen after the floods on the banks of the Ganga at Jahngira Village

Perspective

Sultanganj remains an important pilgrimage destination for the Hindus, even as the original legends related to the placement of the various rock sculptures seem to have been forgotten. From the inscription of Rudrapada and various sculptures of Shiva, it is evident that the site was of special significance for Shaivite worship in ancient times. The same is confirmed from the ancient tradition of pilgrimage which predated the present temple of Ajgaibinath, as mentioned by Buchanan. The reason for the special significance of the site could surely be due to its association in tradition with the legend of Rishi Jahnu. The legend of Ganga’s rebirth may also explain the adornment of the rock boulders with various sculptures representing not only Shiva, but also various other deities including incarnations of Vishnu, Surya and his son Revanta, and others. Since the Mahants themselves were not aware about the actual ancient significance of the site, Buchanan had felt a strong disconnect and attributed the hill originally to some other religion than the ones found to be in present possession. Babu Rajendra Lala Mitra too surmised the Ajgaibinath temple as being not more than two or three centuries old, since it bore no inscription and judging, from its make and appearance, and that the site was quite ancient.

Sculptures within small chambers at Jahngira

From the vast remains excavated, it is also clearly seen that Sultanganj was also the seat of an important Buddhist establishment since ancient times, and once had a large stupa of considerable probable sanctity. Several historical antiquities keep regularly surfacing from in and around Sultanganj as evident from the report in the Hindusthan Standard (Delhi Edition) of May, 23, 1960, mentioning that some labourers “while digging a well last week near a place of worship at Sultanganj unearthed a small golden statue of Goddess Saraswati, two gold coins, a nose ring, an armlet and a gold ring, all stated to belong to the Gupta period”, and many others. In 1990-91, a stone image of the Buddha, sitting in the padmasana and exhibiting the vyakhyana mudra, in black stone, was discovered during chance digging while laying the railway track. All these regular finds along with the antiquarian remains discussed above surely indicate that the place must have been quite important in ancient times. It is indeed strange that it has not figured by any well-known name in ancient Hindu or Buddhist literature, nor has been mentioned by any of the Chinese pilgrims who visited Champa and the vicinity. It appears that the monastery and stupa were contemporary with, or slightly earlier than the earliest of the monasteries and stupas at Nalanda; but, unlike the latter, did not continue to flourish in the later days.

Ganesha (Jahngira)
An effort to evaluate the ancient importance of the site or its identification with any of places so far known to have earlier existed from available literature, does not seem to have been seriously attempted. The Karngarh mound to the west of the town remains to be properly explored as do the vast remains found along the banks of the Ganga from Sultanganj to Jahngira. In such circumstances, it is considered very necessary that these sites are thoroughly excavated and explored again. The Site holds a lot of scope for the future archaeologist and awaits the spade to unravel more mysteries.

Sultanganj as a Tourist Destination

A large number of pilgrims who are on way to the Shiva Temple at Deoghar in Jharkhand, visit the banks of the Ganga at Sultanganj, which thus becomes a popular tourist destination during the monsoons. On other auspicious days like the regular Purnimas (full-moon), the banks of the Ganga witness a flurry of visitors for ritual bath. The route from Sultanganj to Deoghar is roughly 110 km out of which around 100 km route lies in Bihar out of which around 16 km lies in Bhagalpur district, 26 km in Munger district and rest is in Banka. Special arrangements are made by the administration to ensure safety & security along with other basic facilities for the pilgrims. The town however lacks good hotels with modern amenities and the pilgrims prefer to stay along in dharmashalas or in camps temporarily constructed during the melas. An Inspection Bungalow is available for stay with two rooms about a kilometre after Sultanganj on the road towards Munger, which is generally used by government officials on transit.

Sunset time, Jahngira Village near Sultanganj

The roads in Sultanganj are quite narrow and pass through the main market which makes them a regular nuisance for any traveller due to constant traffic congestion. A bridge is coming up on the river which would be connecting North and South Bihar with the other end opening in Khagaria district. The new bridge would surely make Sultanganj more accessible for visitors from North Bihar but at the same time increase the congestion in the already bulging traffic load. A new bypass needs to come up to skip the old town which could be developed as a heritage marketplace since it still retains the look and character of the 18th century. New hotels with proper information about the religious and historical sites nearby can alter the potential of Sultanganj as a modern tourist destination. A centre for yoga and meditation can also be considered on the banks of the Ganga to attract like minded pilgrims. The remains at the Ajgaibinath hill and the boulders nearby need to be immediately protected and preserved with information about them available on display in a properly constructed site museum.

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